Lithuania’s parliament became the latest to label China’s treatment of its Uighur minority as “genocide” on Thursday, voting to request a U.N. investigation into internment camps and a review of relations with Beijing by the European Commission. Several countries, including the United States, Canada, Netherlands, and the UK have already accused China of genocide, which is defined as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group” by international convention.

Reports that have surfaced from Xinjiang have revealed that in addition to interning Uighurs in camps, China has been forcibly mass sterilizing Uighur women to suppress the population, as well as separating Uighur children from their families. In 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that it had credible reports that the Chinese were detaining up to a million people in “counter-extremism centers” in Xinjiang.

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The Australian Strategic Policy Institute discovered evidence of more than 380 of these “re-education camps” in Xinjiang in 2020, a 40% increase over previous estimates.

Previously, leaked documents known as the China Cables revealed that the camps were to be run as high-security prisons with strict discipline and punishments. Those who managed to escape the camps have described the atrocities committed in the camp. They have recounted horrors of physical, mental, and sexual torture. Women have spoken of mass rape and sexual abuse.

Reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, sexual violence and forced labor in Xinjiang have been coming out to public knowledge which calls for a necessitated thorough and independent assessment. Earlier US has banned cotton imports from an influential Chinese producer citing that it says uses the forced labour of detained Uyghur Muslims. 

Who are the Uighurs?

About 12 million Uighurs, mostly Muslims, live in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

The Uighurs speak their language, which is similar to Turkish, and consider themselves to be culturally and ethnically related to Central Asian nations.

The Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) have been migrating to Xinjiang in recent decades, and the Uighurs believe their culture and livelihoods are under threat.

How has China responded to the reports?

China has stated that reports that it has detained Uighurs are completely false. According to the government, the crackdown is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism, and the camps are an effective tool for re-educating inmates in the fight against terrorism. China has also dismissed claims that it is attempting to reduce the Uighur population through mass sterilization as “baseless,” and claims of forced labor are “completely fabricated.